The coronavirus is still heavily hitting Italy, and the outcomes in terms of victims, losses, and long-term consequences for the economy (e.g., jobs) appear dramatic.
It’s too early to grasp the lasting impact of the crisis for the church. We’ll need time to reflect on what the Lord is doing in this.
Certainly, he is at work in these difficult circumstances. Discerning and understanding his extraordinary providence, especially when it comes in the form of disrupting our plans and practices, is a task that will accompany our prayers and reflections for some time. Here are some tentative, provisional, half-processed points that come to mind as we seek the “mind of Christ” in this pandemic.
Church Life Goes On
Until the Lord returns, church life must go on, whatever the circumstances. This promise comes from the Lord Jesus himself, according to whom “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church (Matt. 16:18).
Empowered and encouraged by this promise, across the centuries the church has survived persecutions, famines, and plagues, never stopping her life and mission. Nothing—coronavirus included—can stop the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. What Paul said of himself can be applied to the whole body:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4:8–10)
The present-day persecuted church—suffering and thriving—is a living example of the God-given resilience of God’s people.
Nothing—coronavirus included—can stop the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The coronavirus certainly brings challenges and restrictions to ordinary church practices. In Rome, we had to find ways to celebrate an already planned baptismal service that was eventually celebrated in a home, with the pastor, deacons, and family members physically present, while the service was livestreamed to the rest of the church members and friends.
Not allowed to leave our homes and to gather with others, we’re experiencing different (digitalized) forms of celebrating the Sunday service together. We’re being forced to think about what’s really essential in order for our services to be celebrated in a way that honors God and edifies his people. We’re appreciating afresh the centrality of the Word preached, the beauty of simple singing, the power of Scripture reading, and the sweetness of Christian fellowship and prayer.
Being a small-sized church (less than 50 members), the switch to technology makes it easier to maintain significant levels of personal interaction and family connection. Pastoral work, evangelism, discipleship, mercy ministries—all involve heavy levels of interpersonal relationships that can only be partially matched with technology. These are areas in which we need ongoing conversations about how to meet the challenges of being a faithful and functioning church in times of forced isolation.
What remains to be seen is what we’re going to do with the church’s ordinances (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Now that we’re unable to visit each other’s homes, we’ve stopped celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and we’ve also stopped planning baptismal services. This is a significant disruption and the long-term effects are still to be evaluated.
The coronavirus is reminding us that church life doesn’t depend on spacious buildings, commodities, or special effects. Church life has become too dependent on non-necessary things. It’s time to appreciate what’s essential.
Churches Will Reap What They’ve Sowed
With the present-day impediments, we’re unable to do the same things in the same ways. You can’t plan long-term; you can’t really stay close to people the way you or they might want; you can’t really be there with them. Technology helps—but only to an extent. Even the best technology has limits when it comes to church life.
The coronavirus is reminding us that church life does not depend on spacious buildings, commodities, and special effects.
The coronavirus outbreak is an opportunity to rely on God and to test the quality, wisdom, and breadth of our ministry. What we’ve sowed in the life of the church and in people’s lives over the years will spring up and bring fruit. As for our preaching, will it be remembered now that it’s merely livestreamed? As for how we live the Christian life, will it be imitated as an example for others? As for our godliness and disciplines, will they be followed now that we live apart from people?
In the book of Genesis, Joseph could face seven years of famine in Egypt only because in the preceding seven years he had wisely managed that time of plenty (Gen. 41). This present crisis can perhaps be thought of as a time of famine.
Have we prepared our churches for this famine? Are they prepared to survive and flourish without the abundance of ordinary life we often take for granted? Have we stored enough Christian doctrine and spirituality for them to be nourished? Amid challenges and concerns, the church that will grow in time of testing is the church that reaps what was sowed.
During King Saul’s reign, “there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel” (1 Sam. 13:19). This was a severe lack in Israel’s social and economic life, but apparently it wasn’t a problem in times of peace. But when war against the Philistines came, the Israelites realized that “on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear” (1 Sam. 13:22). What a disaster! Because of a failure to prepare, the Lord’s people were almost lost to their enemies.
In times of crisis and restriction, our ministry will be tested because it’ll prove whether or not it has been faithful, deep, and forward-looking. Are we preaching the whole counsel of God, or just bits and pieces of a “cool” message? Are we fostering missional and resilient communities, or are we pampering lazy and complacent groups? Are we modeling gospel-centered lifestyles, or are we promoting tribal subcultures?
Perhaps the coronavirus crisis will tell. What we’ve sowed, the church will reap.
Our Solid Rock
The crisis has abruptly changed our plans, our lives, our conversations, our relationships, and ourselves. Perhaps little afterward will remain exactly the same. We don’t yet know. God is the only unchanging factor in all of this.
Will the coronavirus change our theology? I hope God will sharpen our theological understanding in this time. I hope it’ll sharpen our doctrine of God. The triune Lord is sovereign over the virus, allowing it to accomplish his purposes. How and why it’s happening is a mystery for us, but it’s not beyond God’s control and plan.
How and why it’s happening is a mystery for us, but it’s not beyond God’s control and plan.
His providence stretches from favorable seasons to tragic events. His plans surpass our imagination. His authority sits over evil. His control masters what is unknown. His presence is always with his people. His purposes bring glory to himself, working for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
My prayer for the church facing the disruption of the pandemic is that we will be encouraged to expand and consolidate the “big God” theology of Scripture.